Dear Mr. President:
I understand you are planning a $1.5 billion drive for the promotion of marriage. Although my political leanings are not as conservative as yours (even my wheelchair has trouble turning right), as a trained marital and family therapist I’d like to offer some thoughts.
Most marriage begins as romantic love. The passion in the body usually guides the thinking process. In the early stages, people say they love one another, but what they really love is how they feel with that person. In time, the intense emotions dissipate and people slowly get to know one another as they truly are. Disappointment is almost inevitable. The big question is what people do when they realize the person they are living with is not exactly the one they wanted.
Many people, unfortunately, try to change one another into their own vision – a vision they might have learned from their parents, their childhood dreams, or even television. Nevertheless, people try to change one another to have their needs met. As you can imagine, Mr. President, this turns into a vicious cycle of frustration, disappointment, anger, hurt and emptiness. Many of these marriages end in divorce.
But some people actually learn to love their partner for who that person is. We call this mature love. Mature love is when you understand your spouse has baggage and weaknesses and even old wounds, and you love them – not despite their wounds but partly because of them. More than toleration of differences, mature love involves coming to embrace them. When one spouse feels pain, the other can feel compassion. Mature love looks deeply into our spouse’s eyes – and sees the heart.
We mental health professionals long have known about the power of role models. If we grow up in loving families or caring communities or nurturing and generous cultures, we are more apt to be loving people. So how do we promote mature love? Role modeling. Please use your pulpit and power to promote genuine compassion – and by this I do not mean politically expedient conservative compassion.
Here is an example of the kind of compassion I am talking about, one that comes from an open heart and teaches love. Imagine that you are gay or lesbian. Then imagine the pain of being in a culture in which you are systematically rejected, scorned, sometimes killed and told by religious leaders that you are a sinner – particularly at a time when volumes of research show that homosexuality is not simply a “choice.” Try to feel the fear, alienation and pain. And if you are moved to tears, then you are feeling genuine compassion.
If I had $1.5 billion to promote marriage, I would use the bulk of it to role model compassion. I would help couples living near the poverty line to get jobs that gave them dignity and respectable income. I would help them find safe and healthy day care for their children. I would help create a community where they found ample support and nurturance.
With the rest of the money, I would take couples that are not happy with one another and temporarily house them in poverty areas. I would use that money to pay their expenses while they devoted their time and energy to feeding the homeless and caring for people who desperately need it.
Why? Because when we focus on our own suffering, it gets worse. But when we take an active role in contributing to helping others, personal pain diminishes. I am sure feeding the hungry would help many of these couples develop compassion and respect for the larger world, each other, and themselves.
Ultimately, marriage involves love. And mature love involves embracing differences with an open heart. It is impossible to have an open heart and a closed mind.